Three years ago, I had a lunch meeting, and at the end of the meeting, I cut meat out of my diet. The lunch meeting was with somebody I didn’t know very well, and still don’t. The purpose of the lunch was to renew an advertising contract between the two organizations we worked for. When it was time to order, my lunch companion ordered soup. By this point in my career, I had been on a lot of lunch meetings, and I had never recalled a man ordering soup as a main course. It probably broke some sort of etiquette rule, but I asked him, “Are you sure that will be enough for you?”
He said that it would be enough, and he told me that one of the reasons he chose the restaurant we were at was its variety of very good soups. He explained to me that he did not eat meat or dairy products, and tried to eat very little sugar. Again, I broke a rule. “Why?” I asked.
He then began to tell me that his wife had cancer and after doing research, they chose to drastically alter her diet to exclude meat, dairy, sugar, and certain carbohydrates. After doing so, at each doctor’s visit, her markers began to improve more and more. The story drew me in. I questioned him on what other changes she may have made to her routine and what sort of treatments she was having done, and he answered each question, pointing again and again to the impact the diet had. He talked about how they had connected with others whose dietary changes had had similarly startling impacts. None of what he said was inconsistent with stories I’d been reading in the news prior to this linking a plant-based diet to decreases in certain cancers and heart disease.
I’m a skeptic, though, and I still have questions about his wife’s experience, but nonetheless, I left the lunch meeting having been deeply affected by our conversation. I decided to cut out meat from my diet. Has it made me healthier? I’m not sure. About a year after giving up meat, I was having some drinks with a group of coworkers. We were reminiscing about a former coworker who had moved on, when somebody said, “He was the only vegetarian I ever met who actually gained weight!” Somebody else laughed, and I asked, “How is that possible?” The response: “Did you ever notice what he ate once he gave up meat? French fries and bread! All the time!”
I find that phrase rattling around in my head a lot: french fries and bread, french fries and bread. I try to make sure that I’m not replacing meat with “french fries and bread.” To be sure, I have days where I would have been better served eating a meal centered on lean meat instead of the fried, meatless meal that I chose. Those are the days I question not eating meat. Rather than throwing in the towel, though, I try to use those days as a reminder to get more creative about adding healthier fruits and vegetables to my diet. I also try to avoid approaching vegetarianism as “scorekeeping.” In that spirit, I offer the following confessions: At Thanksgiving and on New Year’s Day, I ate some turkey. Last summer at a baseball game, I had a hot dog and a beer. Still, I continue to believe there are usually healthier ways to get protein than eating fatty meats.
A year into giving up meat, I had lunch with a friend who worked at the same organization as the man I had the business lunch with three years ago and whose conversation caused me to alter my diet. His name came up, and I said to my lunch companion, “I never told him this, but he was influential in my giving up meat. He told me about his wife at lunch one day and how the two of them changed their diet in response to her illness.” She had a funny look on her face. “He eats meat,” she said. “We have a client who raises cattle and I just saw him eating a steak at a fundraiser at their home.”
To counter my shock, she went on to explain that, yes, he did drastically alter his diet to support his wife, and yes, she is doing quite well as a result of her diet and treatment.
I don’t like applying a label to what I choose to eat or not eat. I don’t think of myself as a vegetarian. I think of myself as somebody who tries to find non-meat sources of healthy protein, but eats a hot dog at the ballpark once a year. Whatever that description of vegetarianism is called, I owe any success I’ve had with it to a steak-eating vegan and an obese vegetarian. Bean burger recipe to follow soon.